Sermon - 16th June 2013
Shaping the community by the Spirit's power
Scripture - Acts 2:1-4, 42-47; 4:32-37
[An audio version of this sermon is available. Please go to Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
The Book of Acts is not history. It is certainly the book in the New Testament which most feels like a historical account: but Acts is just as much an interpretation of the life of the early church as the gospels are interpretations of the life and teachings of Jesus. Like the gospels, the Book of Acts is selective, and subjective; it connects with authentic history from time to time; but it really reflects the wider intentions and mission of the religious community which compiled it.
There are two broad themes which crop up again and again among those early Christian followers: first, the reality of the power of the Holy Spirit in their mission to spread the good news of Jesus; and second, the overwhelming conviction that the teachings of Jesus had to be lived out in communities where gifts, talents, strengths and weaknesses were shared for the benefit of all. In short, they lived out a vision of being connected to God, and being connected to each other – and they understood that you couldn't really have the one without the other.
Throughout the book we hear about encounters with individuals and groups where opportunities arose for the good news of Jesus to be shared, and we see how lives were transformed as a result of spirit-filled disciples opening up whole new understandings of God. But even those spirit-filled disciples needed the support of their communities to achieve their missions.
The reason that Paul wrote letters to so many churches is because he was supporting, and was being supported by, the various communities of Christians which he had established on his journeys around the eastern Mediterranean. The communities he visited gave him the stimulus to share the gospel; the problems they experienced gave him the opportunity to teach, to correct and to challenge; and the practical support they gave him enabled him to continue the tasks which he felt called to undertake as an apostle appointed by the living and resurrected Jesus. Even for Paul - that gifted, driven genius of the apostolic church - the God whom Jesus revealed was encountered in communities. Christianity was not a solo profession: it was a communal journey towards the Divine.
Of course, as soon as the early church embraced and absorbed the power of the Holy Spirit, they realised that the Spirit brought change; it generated a sense of movement, of dynamism; it called people forward into new and more abundant life. Nothing stood still any longer; the new spiritual power needed to be released and applied in ways which would bring the kingdom of God closer to its ultimate fulfilment. Jesus changed things in the world around him; and, driven by the spirit, so must his disciples.
The changes which came about during those apostolic times were truly astounding. Leaders emerged from within the Christian communities to carry on the work of the gospel; Christian discipleship broke out of the confines of the Jewish tradition and became a universal faith open to all, with no defined boundaries in terms of race or culture; and the Christian message came to be seen as so radical and challenging to the status quo that many attempts were made to suppress it until eventually it became too widespread to be contained.
I wonder how much of that dynamic energy, driven by a gospel of justice and peace, supported by forward-looking and nurturing communities, we still experience today?
Are there times when we could do with a little less energy in our churches – less change; more of what we're used to and what we know and like; fewer demands to do things, fewer suggestions to get involved, or to pursue a cause?
Are there times when we find it hard work to connect with the communities that we might link up with? Do we sometimes wait passively for people to feed us when, in reality, all we need to do is take the initiative, pick up the fork and walk to the table for all the nourishment we could want? Are there times when we look inwards and fail to notice the outsider who would love to join our circle but can't seem to break in?
Many of us, if we're being totally honest, would probably say 'yes' to some of those questions. They are perennial issues in any group: change sometimes seems like one challenge too many, especially if we are tired or overburdened; or it can create a sense of loss and grieving for past achievements which we fear may not come round again. There are times, if we’re honest, when our communities cease to meet our own personal needs and priorities - possibly because we have changed but our community hasn’t.
But the lesson from the apostolic church seems to be that we can't be effective disciples without recognising that our journey with Jesus involves allowing his Spirit to challenge us and change us, coupled with an understanding that our communities need to be regularly re-energised, re-inspired, and re-focused on their vision of the coming Kingdom.
The message from today’s reading is that if the Holy Spirit is in this place, and is strengthening this community to bring the gospel to life, and if it is empowering us to be today's disciples of Jesus, then the power needs to be released and applied in ways which will bring the kingdom of God closer to its ultimate fulfilment – just as it did when those first followers of Jesus were required to hold together the teachings of their Master and the world as they experienced it, and to discern where they were being led.
It takes courage to release the power of the Holy Spirit in a community, and to be open to change, and to work to bring about change in the world which surrounds us. I see that courage, in many diverse ways, in this community which we call our church.
I see people standing up for the rights of others. I see people championing causes which are aimed at justice and equality. I see people ministering to others by welcoming them at the door, by sharing and interpreting God’s word, by making music, by offering intercession, by leading us in the act of communion, and by offering someone a warm drink and a friendly word. I see people bringing leadership skills and sharing their experience and insights in the administration of our church. I see people actively learning more about our scriptures and our faith. I see friendships forming, often reinforced by the use of modern communications and social media during the week so that our church community continues to be active beyond just our Sunday encounters. I see people give generously - sometimes sacrificially - so that the community can stay together and continue towards its vision. I see people give so that others can eat. These, and the many other things which we all see, are hallmarks of our existence as a community: our faith is not a solo profession; we are journeying together.
The things we do, and the ways in which we do them, are distinctive to us as a community. We have an identity, a voice, and a message - all of which are destined to evolve as we continue to journey with Jesus into a deeper understanding of God, and as we continue to engage with, and challenge, the world around us. And these hallmarks are not just our agenda: they are also the bonds which hold us together.
I have no doubt that it is the same Holy Spirit who empowered the early church who today shapes our identity, gives sound to our voice, inspires our message, and blesses our distinctiveness. And I believe that we are blessed in that way because we recognise that the teachings of Jesus have to be lived out in community, where gifts, talents, strengths and weaknesses are shared for the benefit of all, and where we embrace the vision of being connected to God and connected to each other as we continue to evolve.